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Bullying the Coy Mistress throughout History (Carpe Diem poetry)

(c) Rubens, 'Pastoral Scene' (1638)

Prune back your long hopes.
As we speak, envious time
is running away with us.
Pluck the ripe day!
Trust the future as far as you can throw it.

- Horace

'Coy mistress', sir? Who gave you leave
To wear my heart upon your sleeve?
Or to imply, as sure you do,
I had no other choice than you
And must remain upon the shelf
Unless I should bestir myself?
Shall I be moved to love you, pray,
By hints that I must soon decay?
No woman's won by being told
How quickly she is growing old

- A.D. Hope

People who say "Carpe diem!" mean well. (We are running out of time, after all.) But you have to wonder if even the urgent affirmation of good life justifies the associated YOLO crap and emotional blackmail.
Premise: [Action x] looks pretty stupid.
Premise: But you'll die some day!
Conclusion: You may as well [x].
or, less ignobly:
Premise: Life is transient. (Memento mori)
Premise: You're in your prime now. (Sic transit gloria)
Conclusion: Get on with it. (Tempus fugit ergo carpe diem)

Popularly, 'carpe diem' is the lyrical form of saying "Lighten up, dude!". The prejudice here is that to read - or to have a child - or to talk to friends about tv - is seizing the moment less than having dead weird sex and drinking loads. Virgil:
But meanwhile it flees: time flees irretrievably,
while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail.
Carpism tells us that risky business is our proper business, just because we will not get out of life alive.

This is stupid in several ways, not least because the actuarial odds of a young man dying from anything over one day is roughly 0.0003% - less likely than all sorts of things people rightly ignore, like being wrongfully arrested for terrorism or being audited by the Inland Revenue.

There's a large and ancient genre of poetry that tries to affirm the present with death in mind (premier among them, Omar Khayyam, a man as liberated - in the 11th Century - as anyone I know today). But modern carpists are stupider than the stupidest hedonist of old. (Baudelaire: Be drunk!... Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.") I get it: it's about affirmation; affirmation is cool. But if you really did affirm everything, then you would disappear. We are in large part what we stand apart from and decide against.
"Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk." - See more at:


Anyway we're going to talk about the subset of carpe diem poems called "Persuasions". In modern terms, this is Carpe diem as creepy Petrarchan destabilising tactic. "We'll die; hurry, have sex with me!":

The famous one is "Ode รก Cassandre", a classic statement of the quintessential romantic proposition "You really won't be pretty when you're old":

Mignonne, come let us see if the rose
Which this morning opened
Her robe of crimson to the sun,
Has not already lost, at evening,
The folds of her crimson robe,
And her complexion, so like your own.
Alas, see how in such short a time,
Mignonne, she has, from above,
Alas, Alas, let her beauty fall!
O Nature, truly cruel,
That such a flower should endure
Only from morning till evening.
Now, if you would believe me, mignonne,
While your young age is in flower
In its verdant freshness,
Pluck, pluck your youth,
Since, as with this flower, old age
Shall tarnish your beauty

It gets worse. Contemplate his 'To His Young Mistress': "Give back the heart you stole from me, / Pirate, setting so little store / On this your captive from Love's sea, / Holding his misery for gain, / And making pleasure of his pain. // Another, not so fair of face, / But far more pitiful than you, / would take my heart, if of his grace, / My heart would give her of Love's due; / And she shall have it, since I find / That you are cruel and unkind. // Nay, I would rather that it died, / Within your white hands prisoning..."


An early counterexample - a Dissuasion. Good, sad, negative stuff:
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.
But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love
This was in reply to a limp and innocent pastoral by Marlowe, and is in fact an argument against rolling in the grass because time flies. It's a little obscure, but the point seems to be a mix of 1) not being an arse, seeing the obvious bad consequences of always completely seizing the short-term (particularly for women!), and 2) Raleigh's heartbreaking, Platonist, masculine refusal to love anything which will die.


Small is the worth
Of beauty from the light retired':
Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desired,
And not blush so to be admired.
Then die — that she
The common fate of all things rare
May read in thee;
How small a part of time they share
That are so wondrous sweet and fair!

i.e. "SHOW ME YOUR FACE IT IS A GOOD FACE WHAT'S THE MATTER." As usual for the Renaissance, contains a section blaming the object of desire for the desire, and an attribution of her lack of reciprocation to malice. Actually, let's look at that last stanza, bizarre excursion from the script as it is: Waller enlists a desperate flower to commit suicide in front of his inamorata, thus showing her that the world is cruel - but don't worry cos ol' Eddie is here, waiting.


Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying...
Then be not coy, but use your time
And while ye may, go marry
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry
Apparently picking flowers was the living end of symbolic hedonism in Roman times. (Rome was of course full of good morbid hedonism: "tempus fugit", "sic transit gloria", "memento mori", all that). It's easy to forgive this particular Persuasion - we are all maidens to Herrick; he never married himself (so he knows what he's on about); and he really does mean well.


This, however, deserves sharp words and a cold shower - for all that it is the greatest piece of wheedling lust ever written. (Anyway my panties dropped for it.) Beautiful it is, but there's menace in there - check the bit where he sets maggots on her:
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honor turn to dust...

: "It's either my cock or insects, baby".



Childish and hallucinatory novel which tries to reject everything, have no ideals. And it turns out that even when you give universal nihilism your best shot, aesthetics still remains, and death still remains, and so too does carpe diem:
In a little while, love, you will be dead; that is my burden. In a little while, we all will be dead. Golden lads and chimney-sweeps, all dead. And when dying, will you be able to say, I turn down an empty glass, having drunk to the full, lived to the full? Is it not madness to deny life? Hurry! Hurry! for all is soon over. Blown, O rose! in the morning, thou shalt fade ere noon... Have you thought of the grave? O love! have you thought of the grave and of the change that shall come over your fair body? ... Be not miserly with thy white flesh.


  • "Summer of 69" (1984) - Bryan Adams.
This isn't a Persuasion at all, but it follows the contours of one, backwards - our hero feels the Sexy Peer Pressure of Death himself (And when you held my hand / I knew that it was now or never"). The song is anti-Carpediem because it takes place after the moment was seized long ago, when there's only nostalgia left ("Those were the best days of my life."). Mr Adams seizes the past (a far easier, emptier and more human impulse). The song's success says something about even zany teenagers' relationship to YOLO.


  • "Forever Young" (1984) - Alphaville
Extremely muddled take on indeterminate themes, clutching, as it does, at both eternal recurrence and the passing of all things / the hubris of dreams of immortality. Let's be kind and say that the coherence was lost in translation. Wise man say:
It's hard to get old without a cause,
I don't want to perish like a fading horse,
Youth is like diamonds in the sun,
And diamonds are forever

Popped up again in 2012, the most recent Year of Death in Pop. (2012 was also a Year of Fetishising Youth in Pop, but every year is that.)


Cold War entry from Scotland's unluckiest man. "Universal death is around the corner; let's hide and screw!" Nursery rhyme ending his longish American scad:
Lady be mine, while there is still time
and there's a country made for two.
We can find its door if we know no more
than any man and woman do.
Before falls the fire from the blue blue sky
on some lunatic's launching day,
lady be mine, O lady be mind,
let's fuck our lives away


Mortality really was all over the charts last year. This one is funny; the way I heard it, dying young is the plan ("Let's make the most of the night CUZ we're gonna die young!") - which completely undoes the quiet uncertainty and tension of the old trope. Also: Tee hee! (There was also "We Are Young" which wasn't about death, and managed to be superlatively sentimental without saying anything at all.)


So bad! 1) Literally seize someone, literally mention the possibility of their imminent death:
Grab somebody sexy, tell 'em: 'hey,
give me everything tonight; 
for all we know, we might not get tomorrow;
let's do it tonight
2) Be here today, literally gone tomorrow
Take advantage o' tonight
Cuz tomorrow I'm off to Dubai
To perform for a princess
But tonight, I can make you my queen.

(See also the shockingly good Robbie Williams comeback 'Candy': "And if it don't feel good / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for / What are you doing it for?")


Of course, people were seriously repressed about all sorts of things when Marvell and Herrick were writing - and of course the tradition does carry a very important banner, namely "The present is important". But we have to be on guard; the "WHOOO! Let's smash shit and fuck!" crew have seized the day.

Questions, questions. Who feels carpe diem's pull most? (Either the unusually sensitive - or, as seen above, the ordinarily immature.) Does mortality more motivate men to action? Is that why they harass the coy mistress year after year? We should doubt it. The pursuit of sexual conquests is more often pathetic flight from mortality than principled enjoyment in the face of it.

But bid life seize the present?
It lives less in present
Than in the future always,
And less in both together
than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing—
Too present to imagine

- Robert Frost